In the shadow of Monticello, a model of sustainable agriculture

Adrian Higgins

THE WASHINGTON POST – Cooler weather alone will not reverse weeks of extreme dryness. Continue to water trees and shrubs stressed from the lack of rain. Avoid frequent, light waterings in favour of occasional deep soaks.

Plants need one to two inches of water weekly. Trees should receive 25 gallons of water.

A late, hot and dry growing season keeps Nat Ratchen busy in a one-acre vegetable garden in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

The big, ghostly white dent corn is ready for picking – the drying leaves are rustling in the breeze – the lima beans are putting out one last crop, the okra is nine feet tall and the eggplants are saying “pick me”. “They kind of like this end of the season,” Tufton Farm associate Nat Ratchen said, perusing a violet-orbed variety named Beatrice.

He works the organically rich, red-clay soil of Tufton Farm, one of Jefferson’s satellite farms that was important to his famous experiments as a plantsman in the early republic he helped found.

Tufton Farm associate Nat Ratchen loads freshly picked eggplant and peppers for delivering to Farm Table, Monticello’s cafe. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Tufton Farm associate Nat Ratchen checks a newly harvested heirloom corn
Thomas Jefferson’s Tufton Farm has a new mission as a model for farming in the 21st Century

For more than 30 years, the 650-acre farm south of Charlottesville has been the centre of operations for the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, whose plant nursery has generated heirloom seeds, perennials and woody plants that have kept alive not just the plant varieties that Jefferson’ grew but also his passion for growing novelties. The nursery’s offerings are available at Monticello, online and at three open houses at the farm. The last one of the year will be held on Saturday.

I once returned from Monticello with seed of his snail flower, a beguiling tender woody vine with white and violet shell-like blooms of intense fragrance. I kept it going for a few years by wintering it in the basement, and then one spring it didn’t wake up. In time along my gardening journey I forgot all about it. Back at Tufton Farm the other day, I was happy to see the snail flower – this time in pots – is still a staple of the nursery.

But I was there for another reason. This year, Tufton Farm has begun a fresh, expanded role, as a prototype of sustainable agriculture for our time and, eventually, a tourist destination where families can come for events, tours and the simple pleasures of being in the countryside.

Ratchen’s field of 39 vegetable varieties is one of the first signs of the farm’s new incarnation, along with an apiary of 25 colourful beehives. By my estimate, that’s at least a million pollinating honeybees.

Keith Nevison, farm and nursery manager, outlines plans for doubling the vegetable production and adding a 15-acre cider apple orchard, a vineyard, a hopyard, fields for cut flowers and herbs and the rotational grazing of cattle in woodland. (The farm is also already used for pasturing a herd of black angus.)

One impetus for this is to supply fresh, local and organically grown food to customers at Farm Table, the cafe at Monticello where many of the 400,000 annual visitors gravitate after seeing Jefferson’s Palladian mansion and 1,000-foot-long vegetable terrace along with the more woeful elements of a plantation built on slave labour.

Alice Waters, the matriarch of America’s farm-to-table movement, visited occasionally and has written that “Thomas Jefferson has long been a personal hero of mine”. But when Waters was there in 2011, she was aghast at the quality of the food and sugary sodas in the cafe, and she let her displeasure be known. She returned last month to survey the improvements during Monticello’s annual Heritage Harvest Festival.

The cafe and its diners are the obvious first beneficiary of the farm, but Nevison seems most energised by its greater role. “We are mostly interested in the challenges facing American agriculture, so the model we want to support is one of diversity, experimentation, success for small and medium-sized producers,” he said.

As for Jefferson, “we are really thinking about what kind of farmer he would be nowadays,” Nevison said.

The gardens and orchards at Monticello still focus on varieties Jefferson grew using techniques in play two centuries ago.

Tufton Farm’s role is not so constrained. For example, it’s unlikely Nevison will turn to cider apple varieties used in early 19th-century Virginia. “We know some of these types are incredibly disease-prone. We know we have got to try newer types,” he said.

The experimental nature of the farm is entirely aligned with Jefferson’s trials at Monticello. He was famously curious, empirical and plagued by failures. But his signal achievement was in breaking the colonial mold of gardens based on cool-season European vegetables and embracing warm-season edibles from the Americas and Africa.

These “oddities” included tomatoes, peppers, okra, squash, eggplant and lima beans – now about as mainstream as a veggie plot gets in Virginia.

“In the same way that Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence defined a legacy of democracy and liberty, the Monticello garden broke with European tradition,” wrote Peter Hatch in his 2012 book, A Rich Spot of Earth. Hatch, the retired longtime director of gardens and grounds at Monticello, makes an eloquent case for Jefferson as, in his words, the first foodie.

In some respects, Jefferson seems an odd exemplar. His conspicuous failures included repeated attempts at raising grapes. When he died in 1826, he left his heirs with so much debt they had to sell Monticello.

This insolvency is attributed to more than the expenses of his large-scale gardening and farming ambitions. He inherited debt, and he in turn was owed money that went unpaid. But he also lived beyond his means.

This doesn’t detract from his green-fingered zeal or the validity of some of his gardening practices.

“He was definitely aware that good gardening starts from the ground up,” said Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s curator of plants.

Nevison, 36, sees Tufton Farm becoming a model for young people who want to learn to farm in a way that will provide a secure livelihood. “I think about climate change and threats to our own food security, and I think we can promote better stewardship and farming practices,” Nevison said.

In addition, he wants it to be a place people of his generation will visit to plug into the countryside and nature. “Young folks need to know where their food comes from, to connect to the landscape that inspires,” he said. “A landscape that is vibrant with wildlife and striving for an aesthetic approach as well.”